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Throwback Thursday - The History of the US Interstate Highway System

Throwback Thursday - The History of the US Interstate Highway System
By Bill Dickson December 17, 2015 10732 Views

Photo Courtesy of Nick Tonelli via Flikr

It’s a road system that took over 30 years to complete from coast to coast. It’s a road system that was constructed out of Cold War fears, but eventually went on to become one of the most vital economic corridors in the nation. This highway system stretches from New York to California and is still considered one of the largest public works projects in United States History. This week on Throwback Thursday, Tool Parts Direct looks at the history of the US Interstate Highway System.

The First Highway

Photo Courtesy of Brian Butko

Before the interstate was created, roads were constructed all across the nation. As the automobile began to take over as the main mode of transportation, highways began to spring up all over the country. States realized that new roads needed to be constructed to transport goods and people in time efficient manner. One of the largest highways was the Lincoln Highway that stretched across the country linking the East Coast to the West Coast…similar to what the old railroads did during the 19th century. It was one of the first transcontinental highways to traverse the United States.

Eventually, the Lincoln Highway was slowly replaced with the numbered highway system. Despite the great road system throughout the country, maintenance was left up to the states and some states did have trouble with road upkeep…especially during the winter time. Many states performed admirably, but others knew a national highway system was needed.

Early Plans

Photo Courtesy of Art Contrarian

Plans for an early interstate system began before the US entry into the First World War. A new national network of highways was greenlit when Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. This bill provided over $75 million in funding to construct and improve highways all over the country. This bill was in effect for five years, but money dwindled during the war as it was funneled to meet war time needs.

Still seeing a need for a national roads system, Congress eventually passed the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1921. This bill provided matching funds for road construction and improvement. $75 million was provided annually and the hope was that this bill would eventually construct a national road grid of “primary highways” while setting up cooperation with other local highway boards.

It was also at this time that the Army considered road construction vital to national defense and gave a proposed road construction plan to the bureau of public roads. In 1922, WW1 General John J. Pershing presented a plan which was called the “Pershing Map.”

The 1920s saw a boom in road construction and roads started popping up all over the country. As car traffic continued to increase, planners began to realize it needed an interconnected highway system to give citizens access to all areas of the country. During the 1930s, many planners began to see the need for superhighways.

The Interstate Finds Its Champion

Dec 10, 2015 8:35:43 PM

Photo Courtesy of the Eisenhower Library Archives

After the Allied victory in World War II, life got back to normal for many Americans. However, fears continued to grow as the Cold War began and many national leaders thought that a national highway system was needed to transport the military back and forth from one part of the country to another in case of emergency or foreign invasion.

One person who saw an interstate system was needed was former Allied General and President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower was impressed with Germany’s Autobahn system and also saw the need for a road system when he traveled in an Army Convoy on the old Lincoln highway in 1919. He also thought the interstate would help the nation’s economy.

Photo Courtesy of the Federal Highway Administration

Eisenhower was supposed to present the “Grand Plan” to the state governors in 1954. He was unable to attend due to the death of his sister-in-law. Instead, his notes were passed to Vice President Richard Nixon who sold the governors on the plan. The plan said that each level of government – Federal, State, County and municipal – would upgrade all roads and highways in a 10 year span. The goal was to create a highway system that was “speedy, safe,” and fulfilled a need in the national interest.

The Federal Highway Act of 1956

Photo Courtesy of the Eisenhower Library Archives

In 1954, Eisenhower asked his friend and advisor Lucius Clay to develop a response and head a committee that studied what it would take to construct the interstate. After several months of research, the Clay Committee believe the project would cost $27 billion…with $23 million going rural segments of the road. The President submitted the committee plan to Congress which called for $25 billion in bonds and a gas tax for upkeep. It was denied. Many opposed it as too expensive and many also didn’t see the need to pay for a road that wouldn’t help them locally.

In 1955, Congress went back to the drawing board and one question was asked by many who opposed the project’s funding: why should users only pay for the highway when it was supposed to benefit the whole country. Disagreement over financing continued through the year.

In order to get the project advanced, both sides compromised on tax issues that allowed the bill to come to a vote. The Highway Trust Fund was based off the Social Security Trust Fund. This would allow revenue from taxes on highway products to be credited to the highway fund and this would allowed the money to be used on the Interstate System as well as other Federal highway/bridge projects. This revised bill sailed through both houses of Congress and the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was signed into law by President Eisenhower.

Construction Begins

Photo Courtesy of the Missouri Highway of Transportation

After the Federal Highway Act was passed, three states laid claim to being the first project to build the modern Interstate. Missouri claims to be the first state and began its road projects in August of 1956. Missouri first upgraded Route 66 which later became Interstate 44. Once it received its highway funding, it began construction on I-70.

Kansas also claims to be the first project on the FHA and state records show the state began paving before the act was even signed. It marked its portion of I-70 with highway funding in 1956 as well.

Lastly, Pennsylvania also lays claims to being the first as they say the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the first interstate system of its kind dating back to the 19th century. It’s known as the “granddaddy of all turnpikes” and a project many Pennsylvanians take great pride in even today.

The building of interstates would take decades to complete all over the country. In 1974, Nebraska was the first state to complete all of its mainline interstate highways. It later dedicated its piece to I-80 in a formal ceremony.

Photo Courtesy of the Nebraska Department of Transportation

In 1979, the final section of Interstate 5 was finished and dedicated near Stockton, California. The final section of coast-to-coast I-80 was finished in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1986. In 1990, I-10 was completed and dedicated in Phoenix, Arizona. That highway stretches from Florida to southern California. Once other interstates were completed, expansions began…with many states expanding the highway from four to six lanes.

Interstate 10 in Arizona

The initial cost estimate for the system was $25 billion over 12 years. It ended up costing $114 billion and took 35 years to complete. Today, it is one of the largest highway systems in the world and over one quarter of the American population has driven on it at one point in their lives. It continues to deliver products to every corner of the US. The interstate system has also helped in times of emergency, evacuating many people from coastlines or other disaster areas. The interstate continues to have a strong impact and will continue to positively affect Americans all over the country…no matter where they are traveling.

And that does it for this week’s Throwback Thursday. Make sure you keep an eye out for future content from all of us here at Tool Parts Direct!